During the years I was teaching preaching at a university divinity school I was often struck by how eloquent many of our students could be when describing the human condition. They would wax lyrical, find appropriate metaphors, use telling examples of life experiences, and identify with their audience in ways that kept their hearers’ attention and interest. They could use classical rhetorical moves to great effect, taking us to worlds of poverty, illness, struggle, or anxiety with surprising deftness. If there were a preaching Pulitzer for that sort of thing, I’d have had some nominees.
As I took note of my students’ persuasive skills, I began to notice something else too. I began to notice that many of these same students, most of them preparing to be pastors, were far less deft at describing the love that moves them, or grace that fills them, or the hope that sustains them. They sometimes hesitated to speak of God, got tongue tied when it came to Jesus, and might flirt with cliché when it came to describing the experience of grace. Their language wasn’t nearly so rich.
Some of this difference was surely born from a sense of God’s ineffability. God is beyond our description, even beyond language, and so the best way to speak of God might be to follow the Apostle Paul’s injunction to simple speech. Some of this difference might also have come from a desire to not offend hearers with tales of pious conversion. It was as though some of these students felt a need to be less persuasive when it came to matters of faith, perhaps out of fear of looking too strident or dogmatic.
Yet I was also left wondering. Perhaps the explanation was direct. These students come to seminary with a good sense of what is wrong with things, but what were we doing to help them shape a sense of what is possible in God’s realm? Did the fact that we rewarded critical thinking more than appreciative description effect the way they felt they could talk about faith? Has our fear of offending anyone grown the point of saying too little to everyone? Are we losing the very wonder and imagination that speaking of God invites?
Faith-filled experience is as rich, if not richer, than faith-wanting experience. And I do know that the good news of the gospel will touch people's lives in the right way, and turn the world upside down, when the realm of life into which the church invites folks is seen to be as deeply textured, alive and hopeful, colorful and rich as it truly is. Here experience is raised up, flipped over for examination, and handed back all new. Here we can feel things most sharply, love with an intensity unimaginable elsewhere, wait more patiently — as if leaning into life. In faith, we can find our eyes finally opened, our ears finally pitched correctly, and our voices in tune. We need more of what Jim Kay calls a “parabolic imagination” for the gospel. I’d say we also need a wider and happier collection of metaphors, stories, memories, histories, and articulated yearnings.
Let’s start sharing again, not only about what is wrong but also about what is right, true, and possible. Let’s find the words, and let’s offer them to each other and to the world in ways that are both gentle and urgent, always inviting and always ready to wait without desperation to be heard. Let’s find the Christian rhetoric for our time.
Note: This entry is an edited version of a post I originally offered to the blog "Quick to Listen" on June 12, 2007, for Village Presbyterian Church, Prairie Village, Kansas. That blog is no longer online.